Podcast: Explore the history of the BART map


Podcast: Explore the history of the BART map

There are few images in the Bay Area that are more iconic than the BART system map. Millions of people see the maps throughout the system every year and regular riders can probably create a fairly accurate version of it from memory. On this edition of our podcast series “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART,” we're diving into the history of the BART map. There have only been a few versions of the BART map in the entire history of the system dating back to the start of service in 1972. Anytime there's been a suggestion for changes it has sparked a heated debate. Our guest on this episode is Bart Wright, a professional designer and mapping expert who has been heavily involved in designing the BART map over the last two decades.

Bart Wright

Transcript below:

HOST: “For many people BART is a symbol of the Bay Area.  Not only is BART a vital transportation system that hundreds of thousands of people rely on every week, but it has, in many ways come to be part of the Bay Area's image. And within that image, there's perhaps nothing more iconic than the maps of the BART system. On this edition of “Hidden Track: Stories from BART,” we're going to dive into the history of the BART map. There have only been a few in the entire history of the system dating back to the start of service in 1972. Anytime there's been a suggestion for changes it’s sparked a heated debate. To learn more, I'm joined by Bart Wright, who's a professional designer, a mapping expert, who has been heavily involved in designing and revamping the BART map over the last two decades. Bart, thank you so much for joining us.”

WRIGHT: “Thanks for having me, Chris. I'm excited to talk about BART maps.”

HOST: “It seems only appropriate someone named Bart would design the BART map.”

WRIGHT: “Yeah, I know, I get a lot of comments about that.”

HOST: “Bart, you have a pretty cool job. Tell us what it's like to be a map designer and to work on projects like the BART maps.”

WRIGHT: “It's interesting, because mapping is changing rapidly. When I started, there were no computers though I got one pretty quickly. And now we've got Google and Apple Maps, and sort of people say, ‘Oh, the world's already been mapped,’ and it's like, no, there's lots to do out there that still needs mapping like the BART maps.”

HOST: “And there are different ways to look at maps now too with the technology, it gives you a chance to really go into detail on things. I think maps are really special. It's the sort of thing that I think a lot of people really like to just spend a lot of time looking at, to really fully digest a map and to take their time and look at the details and all the information included in there. There really is a lot of message, a lot of information is conveyed through those maps.”

WRIGHT: “Yes, there is and there's also a job of the designer to curate that information and make it useful for the user, and no more so than the BART maps. I mean, we could throw everything on there but it's like, no, it's just for that system we’re trying to design something for.”

HOST: “Now, of course, this is a podcast, it's an audio recording of our conversation so people can't see the maps here, per se but what we're going to do is we're going to link to all three of the primary BART maps that the BART system has had throughout its history on our podcast page, BART.gov/podcasts. So, we'll have the three maps there that people can explore, perhaps as they're listening to this, or even just on their own time. And it's an opportunity to click through and really look at how the map has evolved over time. I think it's interesting that for all intents and purposes, there have only been three maps in the history of BART. You go back all the way into the early 70s and there are only three, but there are some significant differences.  Bart, why do you think there have been what seems like a limited number of different designs for the BART map?”

original map

(Original BART system map: 1975-1995)

WRIGHT: “One, I think in the early days, the first 20 years of the BART map, it was technologically it took a lot to change that that map.  There were no cellphones, there was no Internet and doing that was a time consuming, a big effort. Also, the system didn't change for 20 years right, it was built, that was a huge endeavor and then it was 20 years of relatively nothing that within the system that changed.  I think the first change really happened when BART started expansion in the 90s and they thought, okay, what do we need? You know, there's an internal discussion about what map do we need. So that I think was what instigated the first change of the map and to some degree, that happened for the second map, which is number three on your list there on the website that you can look at. Again, it was sort of the BART expansion of the past five years that caused them to rethink the map and what it’s useful for and how are we going to use it.  

The other thing to keep in mind is that these maps are iconic, and if you talk about transit maps, you've got London Tube, Paris Metro, New York Subway. No one can draw that map, any of those maps from scratch but they all know them, right? Everyone knows oh that’s the London map. And so, they sort of become a brand or an icon on their own. I think that's why every time there's been a BART map change, there's definitely been a little bit of an internal debate about well, do we really want to do that? Because this is an icon, this image.”

HOST: “And you even mentioned it in your answer. There's a big difference between now and yesterday in terms of how available the maps were.  Here, you just go on our webpage, and you can see all the maps.  But of course, back in 1975, it was a very different scenario and that created challenges in terms of how often you would change a map and how you would actually print it and get it in front of people.”

WRIGHT: “Right, That's true. And I mean that's, as we said earlier in this podcast, that really was a big part of why it didn't change for so many years.”

HOST: “When you first shared some of the historical maps with me, especially that original one, which is roughly what BART used from 1975 to 1995. And again, folks can see that map and the other two as well at BART.gov/podcasts. I have to admit, when I looked at that first map, it took me back to my childhood. It made me think of taking BART to A’s games, I’ve got to tell you, going to the Coliseum and I relied on BART to do that. It's so clean and simple to look at. It seems to me that that map has real staying power, had real staying power was around for about 20 years. What do you attribute that to?”

WRIGHT: “It was a very simple design and a simple approach. The other thing is that back then there was no Muni connecting to it, there were no other systems like the Capital Corridor or Caltrain and so I think that really played into the fact of like, it just stayed a simple design, easy to read. It's just about BART.  It's not about anything else and that's why it stayed that way.”

HOST: “What do you think it is about maps that can evoke the kind of response I had, where it almost becomes a form of nostalgia to look at an older map?”

WRIGHT: “Yeah, it goes back to that iconic image that you’re seeing. It takes you back, it puts you in places, it puts you in to very specific situations that you were in.  It isn't just the BART map it's any map that you're like, ‘Oh, yeah, I went there, I remember what I did that, right, I remember going there and who I was with.’ So, they, they're able to bring that up for people.”

HOST: “That's one of the things that's cool about public transportation is oftentimes it's associated with very fond memories.  You were taking BART to a game or a concert or a big family event and that's what people think of it.  You look at this particular map, it really is a different time.  Richmond, Concord, Fremont, and Daly City, where our end-of-line stations at that point, it really does feel like a simpler time back then. Was it easier to design because of that?”

WRIGHT: “Yes and no.  I think that, again, the designer of this, that map had the same issues that someone today would have. But in a sense, yes, it is easier because they were only focused on BART and it was a contained system then.”

1995 map

(BART system map: 1995-2010)

HOST: “I'm speaking with Bart Wright, the man behind the BART map, we're talking about the history of those iconic maps. Well, 1995 was a revolutionary year for the BART map, comparing the simplicity of that earlier design to the new version, which includes I have to tell you an incredible amount of information. That is a very busy map, it's hard to imagine a greater change and approach. So, talk about what were some of the thoughts at that time about a redesign and what were some of the goals of this new map?”

WRIGHT: “This map, BART had just started its expansion from its original Richmond, Concord, Daly City, Fremont and I think the very first map in this new style was to include it just had North Concord. So, it was basically, the older map from 1975 to 1995, with just one extra station. But there was a recognition that BART was going to go to SFO, there was also recognition there's going to be a whole new line going out to Dublin-Pleasanton. I think the map was part of the idea of making this more geographical map was to educate people about what was going to happen, where BART was going. If you had just lopped on another little line on that simple X diagram from the original map, it wasn't really clear, wait a minute, which line, where is that really going? In some ways I think of this, how many people would have thought BART to SFO would have been down 101 corridor as opposed to the 280 corridor it takes now.  Dublin-Pleasanton, would it have been going from Dublin to Walnut Creek, as opposed to or even Dublin to Fremont as opposed to the Castro Valley connection that it made. I think there was a big effort to try and educate people and to know that like all this expansion is happening, but the map in 1995 when that first new design came out, it was a far different map than the one that you're seeing right now on the website, where it's got Dublin-Pleasanton, SFO and all that, then you've got all these regional rail connections like Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, stuff like that that’s been added to it. 

It started as not a complicated map and then when I go back to files and look at that 1995 one, I’m like wow, it's very simple. And, Chris, you alluded to earlier about how detailed it's gotten, and it just kept growing, right? That's sort of a metaphor, the map is sort of metaphor for BART for that 10-year period.  I have a timeline of all those maps and I'm like, wow, ’95 it was Concord, ’96 it was Colma, ’98 was Dublin-Pleasanton, all these things just kept going and then Pittsburg-Bay Point. It just kept growing, growing, growing and It's interesting how you say, the map was so busy, because if you look at that ‘95 map, and then you look in 2010, yes, the system grew internally within BART but also, so much stuff grew on that map.  I don't think there was an ACE train wasn't on the map and Caltrain wasn't on the map. So, every year something new came on that map and this school and then that school got out and then these parks and then there's a satellite campus at that school and it gets added. You just have this creep of features just the BART’s exploding and all the features are exploding on the map and by 2010 you had everything.”

current map

(Current BART system map: 2010-present)

HOST: “It really does say something for the growth of public transportation in the Bay Area and it's represented in that third map, which we'll get to.  By the way, as you listen to us, you can look at these three maps on our transcript for this podcast at BART.gov/podcasts.  It really seems with this second map here, again, the one that went into play in 1995, that there was an attempt to really represent the geography of the Bay Area. Was that a challenge to pull off?”

WRIGHT: “It was a challenge to keep that simple X design from the original map.  You see that in this second design style. I think it's important to note that it's not a geographically accurate map. If you take that map, and then you drop Google on top of it, you’ll be like, wow, San Francisco is not that big, the East Bay, Pittsburg, and Dublin-Pleasanton, they're much further east so that map, for lack of better terms, I'll say, the entire East Bay was squished horizontally, and San Francisco and the Peninsula was blown up to twice its true size.  So yes, it's a geographical quote, unquote, geographical map but if you look at that the distance on that map from Embarcadero to Montgomery, which is three city blocks and then you compare it to say, North Berkeley to El Cerrito, which is a couple miles, but they're still the same distance on the map. There was this design issue of well, how do you show this system quote, unquote, geographically, accurately, but also legibly on this square, that’s the Bay Area?”

HOST: “And that's a challenge for mapmakers, isn't it? Because that's not something that's unique to this BART map. We see it all the time with world maps that sometimes things are not the same proportion as they are in reality.”

WRIGHT: “Right, that happens in traditional mapping that's an issue of map projections, trying to take a three-dimensional surface and make it two dimensional. That all comes into play, everyone talks about Greenland being bigger than the rest of the world on certain maps. This issue does come up a lot in transit mapping.  You get all these hybrids that you see out there we can discuss this further when we get to the next map. But you look at like the New York map, or Paris Metro or London Tube, the famous ones. They're all sort of this hybrid of well, they're geographically accurate, but not really. They’re a schematic diagram but not really. It is sort of this merging of art and science.  You’ve got the geographical science and artistic-graphic design element and you mash them together and hope you make something that works.”

HOST: “One thing that I think is quite noticeable from this map to the original map is, like you said, it's kind of the traditional X that we had in that first map. But here, you really do see the contours and the curves of the BART system, you could see how it curves at Glen Park, and then it circles back through Daly City into Millbrae, where that wasn't really represented before.”

WRIGHT: “No, not at all. Like I said, it was the map sort of representative a closed BART system.  You came in a station and that map help you get from station A to station B. There was nothing more to it whether you needed to be where's 16th and Mission compared to 24 Street Mission. No one really knew, you just knew within the system.”

HOST: “It's interesting to me that the BART maps, the designs seem to have some real staying power. This particular one stuck around the BART system for about 15 years. I would imagine the public feedback must have been mostly positive.”

WRIGHT: “I don't know, I think that everyone had just gotten used to that map. They'd grown with it as the system had grown over those 15 years, the map had grown with them. I know from a design perspective, and from internally within BART, the map is getting unwieldy so that was part of the discussion that came up in the late 2000s about making this change to the third map.”

HOST: “To make a change, where does that typically come from? In other words, are we typically responding to concerns from the public? Is it staff just tired of looking at the same old maps? Is it board members concerned that they want a new look that perhaps that's part of their legacy? I imagine there are different answers for each circumstance?”

WRIGHT: “One word, Yes.  The public that wanted change, there were staff members that wanted change, there was the Board that wanted change. There was just a concern, general feeling of what are we going to do? How are we going to make this move forward?  I also think BART was embarking on its next expansion phase in 2009, 2010 so that was part of also the push to do this new map.”

HOST: “I'm speaking with Bart Wright, the man behind the BART maps. This second map lasted until about 2010 and then it was time for another change.  Going in to the third map, and this is the same one that we have to this day.  We went from, I think was a very complicated map that BART used into 2010 and then it almost seems looking at this, this one has a very different look. It seems like on the one hand, it's a cleaner design. It's in some ways simpler. But having said that there's so much included here, when it comes to public transit, it really shows how public transit has become more and more an essential part of the Bay Area. And a lot of that is represented in this new map, which is still in use today.”

WRIGHT: “Yes, it definitely has a lot of transit there. With this new design, to take you back through that decision-making process, the idea was we wanted a geographical representation in some way. We didn't want to throw out everything and just go to simple X design, we want people to understand where they were in the Bay. We wanted a connection again, somewhat geographically to other transit systems. As you said, there's the mid-90s, early 2000s map and then current map, all the transit that's on that ‘95 map is on this map as well, but in a much more simplified schematic approach. That was part of it and then there were other sort of factors that came into play that we wanted to design a map.  The original map, as I said, was this big thing, it was a silkscreen and that was really the only case it was in the stations, it was in trains, and probably got printed a few times here and there in some pamphlets and that was really all it was ever used for. Now it's 2010 and you've got the internet, but you've also cell phones and you still have a big 47 by 47-inch display case in every station and a map is going to go in there and then there's a map on the train. We wanted a map that, to use a popular term from the Bay Area today, that would scale.  We want a map that we could print at the station and we've got all this information, the large format. We've also got this format that can look pretty good on a cellphone screen. Yes, we lose information if anyone goes and looks and some of the developer apps you’ll see that all the other transit has been taken out and other information like connecting transit and transfer stations are very simplistic design there and then other things like stuff being printed in pamphlets and brochures.”

HOST: “I would think one of the goals of a map is not just to be useful to the everyday rider, but you really want it to be a tool for someone who doesn't ride BART on a regular basis.  Say you're traveling to the Bay Area for the first time and you're going to try public transit, you want them to be able to look at a map and be able to get real utility out of it. How important of a consideration was that in this design?”

WRIGHT: “It was part of the factor and that plays into BART taking a design that’s similar to a lot of other transit agencies. When BART had done that second map style that really deviated from what you'd see if you were in London, or you were in New York, or Chicago.  By trying to standardize the map a little more, maybe not standardize because there isn't really a definitive about how these maps are supposed to look. But the idea was to move away from that quote unquote, geographical map that had all the loopy lines and have it more like a traditional transit map.  That plays into you're getting into SFO, English isn't your first language, you have some idea of looking at that map like this is where I need to go.  I can figure it out generally without having to ask someone.”

HOST: “Would you say that's the most important thing that this map accomplishes or are there other things that are accomplished through this map?”

WRIGHT: “Not only that, one of them was to try and make it easier and follow the traditional style of most transit maps, that it would scale.  Another example of that is how we really wanted to make the maps on the trains easy to read the BART system so if you're standing on a train looking over someone's shoulder, the door is about to close, and you're trying to decide do I need to get off at this station, you've got this standard looking image that you're very familiar with and you can see, okay, this is what I do.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Bart Wright, the man behind the BART maps. Out of the three maps that we've looked at, do you have a personal favorite?”

WRIGHT: “I like them all in context of their era. I really feel like the original map was like a 1970s style design and people love it and I think there's a little bit of a retro feel to that, why don’t we go back to that, but it definitely has a retro approach. I understand where the middle one came from. Probably that's the one I like the least, how about that?  I like the one we have now for its approach to being more in the traditional route of transit maps but also trying to be scalable across platforms.  What I'm most interested in is the BART maps to come.”

HOST: “Of course, it's interesting to think about how many people view these maps. Aside from the BART logo itself I can't imagine something else that represents BART that gets as many eyeballs as the BART map.  It really does make it a part of the BART image and makes it really iconic, especially for those in the Bay Area. It really is part of where they live.”

WRIGHT: “Yeah, it definitely is an image and people get mad when there's a change. You had talked about going from the curve from Mission down to Glen Park and Balboa Park in San Francisco and the ‘90s on that map. I forget the name of that curve but there's a curve and when the new map came out, that curve is gone. If you go look on the website, you can see those two versions and there was a lot of heated debate on Twitter about where did our curve go around Glen Park BART? I can't remember exactly what it is, but people wanted it back in. So yes, people, they have this image of it and they hold on to it and it's there. It's interesting, though, I feel like you could ask people to draw this map, they stare at it every day if they’re riding BART as a commuter or a student, but I think you’d get these very different drawings of the map. If you pulled five people out of a station and said, ‘show me the BART map,’ you’d get a very different thing. But I'd love to see what that would look like.”

HOST: “Now that would be interesting. Again, with so many eyeballs on it, and so many people really taking these maps in, how much pride do you take in that, just knowing that some of your work is seen by so many people?”

WRIGHT: “I do take pride in it, more I fear that people are going to hate the lack of the curve around Glen Park. But the most important thing is that for the user, we're trying to create the map that works best for the average user on BART be it a daily commuter or a tourist that doesn't speak English they can somehow use that map somewhat effectively whether it’s on a phone or they’re standing at the big printed one in the station.”

HOST: “There's a lot of stuff that riders can see on BART that gets a certain amount of scrutiny. Maybe a car card, something that presents an image of an advertisement or a public service announcement for BART that we’ll put inside of our train cars. That'll get review from staff, it'll go through several sets of eyes, and then it will get published. I would imagine the process is much more involved for getting approval for a map for the BART map that's going to be around for years and years. Can you take us through that? What is that like and how many folks at BART are reviewing this before it becomes the thing?”

WRIGHT: “More and more as there's more tools available. There was not much discussion in 1995 about changing the map. It was the early days of computers and I think people were just kind of amazed, wow, they can actually get a change done.  Today it's a huge process. This current map, this was in 2009 or 2010, four or five designs were created, and a marketing and research firm was hired to pull a general sample of BART riders from one-time rider to daily commuter for two weeks at Montgomery Street Station people looked at maps and talked about what worked and what didn’t.  That still didn't mean that board members saw the new design and didn't say no, and they held things up and staff held things up and the public's response to certain designs was brought back and forth. It did become, the idea for a new design probably started in 2007, 2008. It didn’t really take until 2010 or ’11.  I imagine the new design, the next version, will take just as much time.  I don’t think much happened in 1972 and in 1995, it was kind of like, ‘oh, you can do it,’ great and here it is.”

HOST: “I would imagine just thinking about what you're trying to accomplish with a map and all the review it has to go through it's almost to me a balancing act between utility, you want it to be useful for the user, you want it to be something that if you're not familiar with BART, you can look at this map and really get something out of it and it's helpful for you to get to your destination. But there's also that branding issue. And it’s part of your image and it's this iconic thing that literally millions of eyeballs are going to be on. It just seems like that would be a challenge balancing that utility against the concerns about image and branding.”

WRIGHT: “Yes, that's true for any branded image anywhere. How do you balance those two things out? Some, I think BART, just the nature of the system just sort of define its image and so really, if you deconstruct that map and that branded image, it really is that initial X and that red line, and the green line and the yellow line, and then the blue line that eventually came in, but that sort of defined that image and how it's going to be.  You could think about Coca Cola and what it looked like or Nike and what it looked like in 1970 and where it is today and sort of think about that with the BART map as well.  It’s how It's progressed over the years and this is where we’re at now.”

HOST: “Very interesting comparison. If you want to look at these maps, we have the three maps on our website right now. You can go to BART.gov/podcasts, all three of them are there you can take your time and really just drink them all in because there's a lot to take in and it really is a trip down memory lane when it comes to the history of the BART system. Bart Wright, the man behind the BART maps. Thank you so much for joining us.”

WRIGHT: “Thank you very much for having me. I enjoyed it.”

HOST: “Thank you for listening to ‘Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.’ You can listen to our podcasts on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Stitcher, and of course at our website BART.gov/podcasts.”